Google's Digital Wellbeing: An important tool for limiting your screen time

Google's Digital Wellbeing gives us an eye-opening look at our app and screen usage. Jack Wallen discusses its features and explains why this tool is more important than ever.

Google's Digital Wellbeing: An important tool for limiting your screen time

Google's Digital Wellbeing is a tool designed to help users control the amount of time spent on a device. I discussed the features with Jack Wallen, the following is an edited transcript of our interview.

Jack: It allows you at a glance to see how much time you've spent on your phone, how many times you've unlocked your phone, how many notifications you've had during a day. And so it gives you this insight into how you depend upon your phone. And also there's another feature to it that I think that certain users will find really important and those are the app timers.


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So what you can do is, let's say for example that you know that you spend a lot of time on Facebook which a lot of people do, and you want to try to curtail that usage of Facebook. What you can do is set an app timer for it. So you say, I only want to allow myself to be able to use Facebook for an hour a day. So you set that timer and once you've used Facebook for that hour, Facebook is no longer available for you for that day.

And of course you can get around it or you can shut off the timer, you can remove it and it'll be fine. But the idea behind it is good, it's Google kind of and I think Apple has their own version of this, but it's Google saying, "We know that certain people cannot step away from their phones and you need to step away from your phone," go out in public, go out in any environment in public and you will see an inordinate amount of people doing this. And there'll be two people standing right next to each other and they're both doing this.

It's like, when you see those my inclination is to just grab their hands and say, "There's a society worth of people around you, interact with them," you're interacting with people on Facebook why don't you interact with people because I think that one of the issues is that most of your interaction is digital, you lose the ability to interact with people face to face.

I think that tech companies like Google are becoming aware of this. They have created a culture of people that have trouble looking someone in the eye and saying, "Hi," instead they have to put their phone between them and then they can interact just fine. So Digital Wellbeing is the app that does that, and it's a great idea to solve a problem that we shouldn't have. But at the same time, I also think, this is just my personal take on it, it is sort of not admitting but saying that something is a problem that really isn't a problem.

Facebook is not the problem, Twitter is not the problem, the problem is people need to be able to just go, "You know, I've been on this enough today, I'll step away from it." And people, I don't think people should need to have put themselves in timeouts.

I remember about five years ago Facebook used to be this gold mine for authors to market their books, and that's really what got me into Facebook so heavily, that all of a sudden I was able to market my fiction to other people and it worked like a charm, and I was on Facebook all day doing that. And I would notice some of my friends my other author friends saying, "Yeah, I need to just give myself a Facebook timeout," like wait a minute, we're adults here, you give your children timeouts, you don't have to call it a timeout, you don't have to set an app or a time or anything.

But then again at the same time when you think about it, some people do need that. I can go, "All right, I'm done with Facebook go away." Some people can't do that, and I wouldn't ever call it an addiction... it's not an addiction, it's a dependency and maybe not even a dependency. There are just certain people that need that interaction, that want that interaction and some people don't get ... Like I work at home at a desk all day, most of my interaction is with cats. So I get human interaction via Facebook and Twitter and it's great.

But some people just need that hand to hold onto them and say, "You know what, it's time, it's time for you to step away." And Digital Wellbeing does a great job, but Digital Wellbeing also gives you a really good like I said an overview of how you use your phone.

Karen: It's eye-opening.

Jack: Yeah, oh it is for sure.

When you go, "I have unlocked my phone that many times today, why?" Or, "That many notifications have come into my phone, seriously?" I remember one more, well it wasn't morning, it was probably late morning, early afternoon. I opened my phone and saw that I had already had over 800 notifications on my Android. Now that's from three different email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, different news apps I have that push onto my phone. And one of the things that I think that a lot of users are suffering from now is just because of the environment that we are living in right now, there's a lot of news.

Karen: It can be overwhelming.

Jack: It can be overwhelming, and especially if you have news apps installed like Huffington Post or Guardian or whatever news app or CNN or whatever news apps you have on your phone, I wake up this morning and all of a sudden it's like, "That happened? That happened? That happened?" It's 8:00 o'clock in the morning, and all of a sudden I've got these major announcements, and it can be so overwhelming.

And Digital Wellbeing is one of those apps where you can go, "Okay, let's set a timeout for you know, I can set a timeout for these news apps."

And I can go, "Okay, you only get an hour a day to bombard me." So I think it serves a very good purpose, I think that the biggest purpose that it serves like you said is an eye-opener for users going, "Oh, maybe I do have a problem." And that problem is either Facebook or Twitter or email or news apps or whatever, I need to get a hold of this.

Karen: Well you know, we wear fitness trackers, we are tracking our steps and our heart rate and all of that kind of thing too, and for us to spend so much time on our devices, we should probably track just to see where we're spending it.

Jack: Oh yeah, we track our steps, why not track our brains and our eyes and say, "Okay, enough".

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